People often say that travelling is all about the journey and not the destination, but for wheelchair users, navigating air travel is often more of an adventure than they would like.
Rolling through large crowded airports, hauling luggage, waiting in long lines, receiving a pat down, being strapped into a tiny aisle chair and then sitting for hours unable to move is exhausting.
We’ve learned that the best way to circumvent some of the inevitable issues is to know what to expect, and prepare accordingly.
What to remember before you book
Before clicking the purchase button, even seasoned travellers should review the airline's policies regarding passengers with disabilities. John Morris, a triple amputee who has flown more than 850,000 miles in the past five years, writes about accessibility for his website WheelchairTravel. He discovered, after reading AirAsia's website, that he cannot fly with the airline because his battery-operated wheelchair weighs more than the airline allows.
When choosing a seat, Morris prefers a window to avoid being crawled over by other passengers. Other travellers, particularly those who cannot transfer from a wheelchair to their seat independently, may prefer the aisle seat. The roomier bulkhead seating might be an option for some, just be aware the armrests do not raise.
Also, keep in mind that wheelchair users exit the aircraft last. The deplaning process can easily take 25 minutes or more, so when booking a connecting flight, always allow ample time. Morris recommends a minimum of 90 minutes. Considering that quick layover might be your only opportunity to visit a toilet – those extra few minutes are precious.
After booking your flight, contact the airline at least 48 hours in advance of departure and let them know you will need special assistance. If you must change airlines, which can be common on international flights, be sure to notify them, too.
Avoid wheelchair damage
"The way the airlines treat our equipment causes some wheelchair users to not travel at all, and that breaks my heart," said Sylvia Longmire, who travels the world solo on her small power wheelchair. Longmire also writes Spin the Globe, an accessible travel website.
You can help prevent wheelchair damage by attaching written instructions explaining how to operate your chair, as well as how it folds and tilts. Before turning a wheelchair over to airport personnel, take off any removable parts such as the seat cushion, removable wheels and footrests. These items may be carried on the plane and do not count as baggage.
For your own baggage, carry as little luggage as possible. Consider purchasing a rolling suitcase designed to attach to a wheelchair.
Finally, always carefully inspect your wheelchair for damage when it’s returned to you and immediately notify the airline if there is a problem. Document any damage you find with photos that you can send to the airline, as well to file a compensation claim.
How to navigate bathroom concerns
Many domestic flights are on single-aisle planes which rarely have accessible bathrooms on board. Even though wide-body planes (those with two aisles) are required to have an accessible lavatory, the tight configuration doesn’t work for many travellers with disabilities. To avoid embarrassment, always confirm before departure that the plane has an on board wheelchair. Flight attendants can push you to the bathroom. They do not assist with transferring to a toilet or providing personal care.
You will definitely be better off using the toilet in the airport before you depart. However, some small or older airports may not have accessible toilets. Staff at the information desk in the airport can guide you to an accessible or family bathroom, or you can review the terminal layout on a nearby map or on your smartphone before you depart to find the closest accessible restroom. Although it isn’t healthy, Longmire stops eating and drinking the day before a flight.
What to do once you get to the airport
Upon arrival at the airport, remind your airline that you need wheelchair assistance. Also, at Dublin Airport, passengers can use one of the “Help Points” or can go to an OCS reception desk in T1 or T2. Once you get to the gate, tell the agent you have a disability and want to pre-board. Unfortunately, you cannot roll on the aircraft and remain in your wheelchair. Passengers who are unable to walk are transferred to a narrow, high-backed aisle chair with security straps. – New York Times